by Lisa Hugh MSHS RD LDN CLT
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Onions are healthy in a lot of ways but they don’t always agree with everyone. If you can’t eat onions due to an onion allergy or onion sensitivity or another digestive issue, it is still possible to enjoy flavorful, well-seasoned meals.
Even if you like onions and usually eat them, but just ran out and need an onion substitution so you can quickly cook at home, the information in this post can help you. If you are a home cook or a professional, I hope the information in this article is helpful to you.
What Are Onions?
Onions are a vegetable that is common in many meals and styles of cooking. Raw onions give a pungent flavor and odor as well as heat, and a burning sensation.
Onions and similar vegetables in the onion family are cultivated and used by people around the world. Onions are part of the Lily food family and the Allium genus. Onions are related to garlic, leeks, chives, Chinese onion, shallots, green onions, spring onions, and scallions as well as asparagus, sarsaparilla, and aloe vera.
Onions In Cooking
Different types of onions can provide varied flavors and textures.
Vidalia onions are generally the sweetest. Yellow onions are used most often as a flavor base and can be described as mellow, sweet, and savory. When cooked, yellow onions can contribute a meaty flavor to broths or recipes. White onions are crispy and red onions are flavorful and tasty on salads and sandwiches.
Shallots are similar to onions and offer a more subtle flavor.
Onions are popular as onion rings, in French Onion Soup, as a base (in soups, sauces, and stews) alongside roasted vegetables, and as a topping (for salads, sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, etc). Onions are also popular in chutneys and as a pickled accompaniment.
Onions are used in cooking in many ways including:
As an aromatic – vegetables (or herbs or meats) that are heated in fat or oil at the beginning of cooking to release aromas and intense flavors. (Sometimes aromatics are strained out before serving but onions usually are not.)
As the main ingredient (such onion rings, French onion soup, and blooming onions).
To give color (think about red onions or green onions cooked in scrambled eggs.)
As a garnish (for example, red onions on top of a green salad or chopped scallions on top of Chinese food.)
To give crunch (think about a crisp onion on a soggy sandwich or chopped onions in salsa).
For sweetness. When cooked onions release their natural sugars. Caramelized onions may be part of a dish’s base or served as a topping. Onions are often caramelized along with other vegetables for a delicious side dish.
As a source of flavor, texture, and aroma. (Think about browning onions in oil or butter at the start of cooking a soup or stew.)
As a seasoning. (Examples include onion powder, onion salt, dried minced onions or lots of other spice blends that include these ingredients.)
As a part of popular bases such as:
As part of the “Holy Trinity” of Louisiana Cajun cooking (celery, onion, bell pepper. Examples of Cajun meals are Jambalaya, Gumbo, and Etouffee.)
As part of the French base Mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot. An example is Chicken and Dumplings.)
As part of the Italian base Battuto/Soffritto (celery, onion, carrots with herbs, which may be cooked in lard, olive oil, or butter).
As part of dips, sauces, spreads, and condiments (in salsa, guacamole, chutneys and with other pickled vegetables).
Can You Be Allergic to Onions?
The short answer is definitely yes. It is possible to be allergic to any food. Onions are not considered a common allergen in the US. Onion allergy symptoms could include tingling of the mouth, difficulty breathing, digestive symptoms, and anaphylactic shock.
In the case of onion allergy (or suspected onion allergy) strict avoidance of onions, green onions, scallions, onion powder and any form of onion is recommended. Because onion is closely related to garlic and shallots, strict avoidance of both foods is recommended as well. People with onion allergy may be cross-reactive to lilies, daffodils, tulips, and iris so caution with these plants is advised.
(If you have or suspect you have any food allergy, you should definitely talk to your healthcare provider to see if allergy testing is needed and to discuss a safety plan including an epi-pen.)
Onions may also need to be avoided for other reasons. Everybody’s body is different and reacts to foods and ingredients differently. Some people have food sensitivity to onions. Symptoms of food sensitivity to onions could include irritation in the mouth, digestive symptoms, headaches, or other symptoms.
(A food sensitivity involves the immune system but not IgE cells as in classic food allergies. Generally speaking, food sensitivity reactions involve white blood cells.)
Also, some people have a food intolerance to onions. (Food intolerances can be caused by digestive problems and generally don’t involve the immune system.)
Onions may be particularly problematic for people with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS). Onions contain fructans, which are a type of carbohydrate. For most people, fructans are good for the body. They are associated with increased healthy bacteria, increased nutrient absorption and colon health. However, they are sometimes a trigger for IBS. This would generally be considered an onion intolerance as compared to an onion allergy.
Common and Hidden Sources of Onions
Onion may not be clearly identified on food labels. Food package labels may list onion or onion powder as an ingredient but onion may be hidden in ingredients listed as “broth” or “stock” or “natural flavor.”
If onions make you sick, please be careful with these foods that may contain hidden sources of onion:
Cajun / Creole cuisine
Mexican cuisine: Picante sauce, salsa, sauces
Seasoning and spice mixes
Processed, frozen and canned meats, fish, and chicken
Other Reasons To Find An Onion Substitute
If onions make you sick (as in an onion allergy, a food sensitivity, or food intolerance) finding some go-to substitutions are a good idea – adding more flavor makes food more enjoyable and adds to the nutrient content of your meals. You might want to find an alternative for other reasons. Some people just don’t like the look, smell, flavor, or texture of onions. Raw onions have a crisp texture and may not be tolerated by people with chewing, swallowing or digestive problems. Lastly, maybe you like onion but just don’t have any on hand and need a substitute for cooking.
Six main characteristics of onion
How to find an onion substitute – Substitution based on characteristics
Because onions are used in a variety of ways, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all substitution. To find the best option, think about the characteristics of onions and how the onion is being used in the recipe.
If you need crunch in your recipes, you can try these for a raw onion substitute.
If you need texture and flavor that smells great, you can try these for a healthy onion alternative.
If you need a sweeter flavor and pleasant texture or a replacement for caramelized onions, these vegetables can be caramelized and can be served as a side dish or used as a topping.
If you need aroma that adds less texture, try these aromatic vegetables and herbs, which can be heated in oil or fat to release their aroma and deep flavors.
If you want to replace the heat of an onion in a recipe, try these for added flavor.
If you need garnish or color, consider these onion replacements.
To replace the green in green onions or scallions, these vegetables can be finely chopped.
Broccoli (When you buy frozen broccoli, sometimes tiny pieces break off. Don’t throw them away! Just use as a green onion substitution when you need a pop of color.)
To add some color in place of red onions:
Carrots (Yes, I know these are orange...but just like red onions give a contrast to green lettuce, orange carrots will offer a similar balance in color.)
Red Bell Peppers
Sweet Red Pepper (Cornitos)
Blood Orange (These pretty oranges look amazing in a salad.)
If you need flavor and seasoning you can try these as an onion powder substitute or onion salt substitute.
These can be added to wet ingredients like broths, sauces, and salad dressings.
Lemon (I have found a little bit of lemon juice to be a really good onion powder substitution. Both “brighten” the food.)
Paprika, Smoked Paprika, Hot Paprika
Garlic, leeks, shallots and chives and good onion alternatives from a flavor and cooking perspective. However, I have to advocate a safety first perspective. These foods are closely related to onion so I advise extreme caution in the case of onion allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. If you are uncertain, please work with an allergist, dietitian or certified leap therapist to determine which foods you can comfortably and safely eat.
Lastly, when you’re considering what to use as an alternative to onion, also ask yourself these questions:
What do you like?
What do you have at home?
What have you used before?
And, please share your tips in the comments below. Let me know what you have found to be a good substitute for onion.
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Written by Lisa Hugh MSHS RD LDN CLT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist & Certified Leap Therapist (food sensitivity expert).
Do you follow a special diet for food sensitivities, food allergies, digestive disorders or other reasons?
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